On Chesil Beach
Ian McEwan goes short
By John Freeman
Not long ago, Ian McEwan was reading to an audience from his new novel On Chesil Beach, a short, finely observed fable about a couple's ill-begotten wedding night on the English coast in 1962. After McEwan finished, a man stood up from the audience to offer his own story.
His yarn also concerned a wedding night: his own. It started out well but ended with him getting so drunk that he stumbled upstairs and passed out on the bed. "His new bride was so angry she went downstairs to the hotel bar, picked up the first man she could find and (slept with him)," McEwan recalls.
Sitting on a couch in his Fitzrovia townhouse, McEwan ponders this detail in thick afternoon silence. His large eyebrows pause on their march up near his hairline. The man's wife kept this a secret for 30 years, he continues, and then broke the news to her husband over dinner on their wedding anniversary. "The reading suddenly became like 'The Oprah Winfrey Show,'"
As it turns out, the Booker Prize-winning author probably won’t need the stamp of La Oprah to sell his story. In spite of its uncomfortable subject—the awkwardness of sex—and its unusual size—it’s nearly a novella—On Chesil Beach blasted out of the gate faster than anything McEwan has published. Conservative MP David Cameron was even photographed reading a copy on the London tube.
The book tells the tale of a young English couple, Edward and Florence, who marry on the cusp of the sexual revolution. They then face down the task which future generations saved less and less for the wedding night—making love for the first time.
Readers of McEwan’s well-known first books, like The Cement Garden and First Love, Last Rites, might be in for a surprise. He has eschewed the violence and bloodiness of his early work, which featured stabbings and murder, for close-ups on the minute particulars of domestic interaction. At one point, Edward picks up a rock and McEwan admits now, “Oh, I was playing with expectations.”
McEwan is also writing about sex in a new way—his characters, naïve now, rather than knowing. After a tiny laugh, McEwan treads toward the shore of self-revelation and then stops short of its shale beach. "I remember feeling like, is this really going to happen to me?" he says about his own first time with sex. "I think I felt the same when I became a father; that I could have children suddenly seemed miraculous to me as it was happening."
Today, he admits, Florence and Edward could probably just as easily meet through an online-dating website. At 22, they would certainly not be in a rush to dispense with their youth, either. "Now it's crucial to be young," he says, "but then it was kind of an encumbrance; marriage was a mark of maturity."
This is McEwan’s 11th novel, his fourth in this short format, a one-sitting read style, as he calls it, which he thinks should be practiced more often. "When you look back, lots and lots of writers did their best work in this form," McEwan says. "Conrad, Lawrence. Right now I'm reading a short novel by Irène Némirovsky."
For all the history of the form, McEwan is turning to a new technology in order to publicize the book—streaming video. In April, the Oregon bookseller Powell’s shot a 20-minute movie about McEwan and On Chesil Beach which will air in 70 bookstores around the country, before going viral over the Internet.
The film made its debut at Book Expo America in New York on June 2 and will be shown in bookstores on June 16.
McEwan is enthusiastic about this experiment, for he has seen how quickly information can travel in today’s media environment. In January, it was revealed in the press that Dave Sharp, a builder from Oxfordshire, was in fact McEwan's biological brother.
In a twist that feels it could have come from one of McEwan's novels, the 64-year-old was given away as an infant to a young couple by McEwan's mother, who had a wartime affair with McEwan's father.
When her first husband died, she married McEwan's (and Sharp's) father. "He told me he was going to a local newspaper with it," McEwan says, "and I said you'll have the press at your doorstep tomorrow morning."
Sharp went ahead, unconvinced it would be such a big deal. The story was picked up and ran around the world. "I had a moment there where I experienced the speed of our media," McEwan says. "Within 48 hours the story had been picked up by 310 papers."
McEwan says he is glad to have Sharp in his life and that the "dusting up" from the event has caused him to think about possibly writing a memoir. "I have already written one essay, 'Mother Tongue,' about my mother that could be a chapter in a nonlinear narrative."
While some critics, especially in America—where the memoir dominates nonfiction bestseller lists—argue that the genre is encroaching into the novel's territory, McEwan disagrees. "I think we will always need the shape that a novel can bring to experience. The only way a memoir can do that is by distorting it."
He makes clear that whatever form such a book would take, it's a way off and it's not as if he doesn't have his hands full. Atonement, which will star Keira Knightley and James McAvoy, has just entered post-production, and producer Scott Rudin has bought Saturday, which Oscar-nominated scriptwriter Patrick Marber is going to take on soon.
Meanwhile, McEwan is finishing an opera libretto for the London stage that "involves a composer in his 60s who is a compulsive womanizer, who will typically humiliate a young woman in his orchestra and then seduce her. It's about the obsessive love his Polish housekeeper has for him; deluded love, like Enduring Love."
McEwan is an occasional opera goer and it "always troubles me that the plot doesn't seem real enough. I'm not a very supernatural person; magic happenings in opera always trouble me." But he is especially pleased that he has worked out the libretto so that it will allow him to have the singer, who is the conductor, conduct the pit orchestra while he is singing.
It's hard to think of a better metaphor for what McEwan does when he's not moonlighting, enjoying "the pleasures of collaboration." He suspects he will keep doing it a while longer yet. At the mention that Philip Roth has a novel coming in the fall, his eyes perk up and a renewed energy comes into his face. "He does? He can't be stopped."
Neither, it would seem, can McEwan.
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